By Rich Frost
October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and Education Law Center joins advocates, educators, and families in recognizing New Jersey’s leadership in working towards safe and supportive schools for all students. But while New Jersey is a model for the nation in some crucial areas, improvements are still needed.
When enacted in 2011, New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (ABR) broke new ground in providing legal protections for bullied students. The ABR established the legal right of students to be free from harassment, bullying, and intimidation.
An important requirement of the ABR is that schools publish their harassment, bullying, and intimidation policies prominently on their websites. The name and contact information of anti-bullying specialists and coordinators must be available on school and district home pages. ELC has begun to monitor schools’ compliance with this simple but important step to keep students and parents informed. Families are encouraged to reach out to school leaders if bullying policies and other information are not easily accessible. Any non-compliance that is not corrected should be reported to the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) through the Department’s county offices.
Another issue ELC is monitoring is a lack of meaningful data collection by the NJDOE on bullying issues. A major deterrent is the State’s current requirement that parents proactively opt in for students to take surveys on sensitive subjects. This requirement reduces participation on many valuable surveys and has been particularly harmful for the New Jersey Student Health Survey, which is currently the only state-level inquiry into many bullying behaviors and harms.
As a result, New Jersey has had no state-specific data available since 2013 on a variety of crucial topics, including school-based violence, bullying, suicide ideation, and student health issues. ELC supports changing this requirement so that parents can opt out of surveys on behalf of their children and has prepared a legislative issue brief for use by the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention.
Finally, for far too long students have been bullied for daring to express themselves in ways that deviate from traditional gender norms. But recently, transgender and gender non-conforming students received some long-overdue bullying protections from both the state government and federal courts. The NJDOE issued guidance affirming the rights of students to use the appropriate facilities, pronouns, and name while they are in school. Meanwhile, the Third Circuit, which includes New Jersey, heavily implied that discriminating against someone on the basis of their gender identity or expression can indeed be an unlawful violation of Title IX. We believe that these developments reflect a new and important understanding of the urgent need to take steps to respect all students’ identities.
ELC will continue our longstanding work to protect the rights of students who are bullied and ensure that every school provides a positive climate in which children can learn and grow.
Rich Frost, a recent graduate of Harvard Law School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is a legal fellow at ELC focusing on bullying issues. Mr. Frost will provide direct representation to students who are the target of bullying in schools and will assess the need to address systemic barriers to safe and supportive school climates through litigation and policy change.
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